2011 – A Year of Extremes

Excessive heat, drought and fires

On the other hand, 2011 could be labeled the “year of the Lucifer” as you will see later in this report.  Albeit, we entered the spring of 2011 with a problem—a severe drought.  If that were not enough late January brought one of the coldest storm systems to invade west Texas in many years, followed within a week by a second one.  At McDonald Observatory in the heart of the Davis Mountains the thermometer bottomed out at -6° F and most of the region experienced below freezing temperatures for a grueling 72 hours.  Many plants were damaged by this unusual winter event.  By May not a single amount of measureable precipitation had occurred across most of the region since the third week of September.  The result of this damaging weather pattern was above average temperatures, persistent dry winds, very limited surface water, nothing in bloom and an almost non-existent insect population.  Most bird species were stressed beyond belief and hummingbirds were no different.  March and April brought a few early migrant hummingbirds trickling in but precious few.  There were no birds, to speak of, in the Davis Mountains, in Fort Davis or in the Terlingua Ranch area.  A handful of attempts to trap and band birds at several of our study sites resulted zero birds caught.  The first productive day finally came on May 1st in Fort Davis when we caught 27 birds.  Shortly thereafter the flood gates would open up, the hummingbird floodgate that is.

Before continuing the hummingbird story I must back up a month or so to briefly chronicle what happened on April 9th.  By chance, we were in Fort Worth that Saturday moving my daughter and her son into a new house.  Also, it must be noted that in January I stepped down as the volunteer fire chief of the all-volunteer fire department in Fort Davis after serving in that position for the past twelve years.  That day was warm with a strong SSW wind blowing.  An unoccupied structure two miles west of Marfa on Highway 90 (22 miles south of Fort Davis) caught fire.  The fire quickly jumped the highway and the adjacent railroad tracks and the now raging wildfire took a beeline toward Fort Davis.  Within two hours it roared through town taking 26 homes and 2 businesses with it.  Local fire resources were overwhelmed, especially when the power went out and fire trucks could no longer obtain water from the fire hydrants.  It continued north for another 25 miles almost reaching Balmorhea State Park and Toyahvale.  Once into the eastern foothills of the Davis Mountains, it turned into the prevailing winds and moved west in rugged canyon country finally being stopped 16 miles west of McDonald Observatory twenty-six days later.  It burned approximately 315,000 acres, the largest wildfire in Texas history.  Luckily, we were spared any damage both to our primary home in Fort Davis (by only two blocks!) and our cabin in the mountains.

Rockhouse fire from McDonald Observatory on the night of April 23rd. (Kelly Bryan)

So, May was here and things were looking up.  We had good banding sessions in Fort Davis and at our mountain property early in the month, and it was time for Fred Bassett to arrive for his annual stop over on his way north to Idaho for the summer.  One effect of the extremely dry conditions was starting to show.  Birds were congregating at feeder stations in large numbers, undoubtedly a survival tactic, as much of the landscape was uninhabitable due to the drought, fires and lack of adequate food resources.  Reports from down in the Terlingua Ranch area were the same, but we had no idea what we were about to experience down there.  We started Fred’s visit on May 11th at our mountain cabin where we had a very good day catching 49 birds of 5 species and one hybrid.  Fred was a happy camper that day and got to band his first ever Blue-throated Hummingbird, a female (one of three being seen).  Add to that a male Broad-billed Hummingbird, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Broad-tailed hummingbirds and an adult male Black-chin X Broad-tail hybrid—it does not get much better than that in the spring.  The next day it was time to head south to our sampling stations in Terlingua Ranch.  By the time early afternoon arrived and we finally caught our breath, we had captured 128 birds of 3 species including 78 Lucifer Hummingbirds, 49 Black-chinned Hummingbirds and 1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Of the 78 Lucifers caught that day, 40 were new birds and an amazing 38 were recaptures including 29 originally banded in 2010, 8 banded in 2009 and 1 banded in 2008.  It still amazes me that these birds were concentrated down there with such density.  The value of the banding program shined that day I must tell you.

Adult male Broad-billed Hummingbird at our cabin in May. (Kelly Bryan)

Fred Bassett banding his first Blue-throated Hummingbird on May 11th. (Kelly Bryan)

Fred needed to collect some Black-chinned Hummingbird data for his project so the next day we banded at Carolyn’s house in Alpine.  Among some 50 birds caught that day was a bird covered with white specs all over its body.  What was it?  It was ash, likely from the fire in the nearby Glass Mountains.  How did we know?  Fred said and I quote, “if it looks like ash, smells like ash and tastes like ash, it must be ash!”  The following day (May 14th) it was back up to our cabin to target the two remaining Blue-throated Hummingbirds that were being seen up there.  We caught 69 additional birds there including 60 new birds and 9 recaptures.  Believe it or not, only 2 of the recaptures had been banded two days prior, a statistic that fully supports the amazing fact about the daily turnover rate of migrant hummingbirds at a given location.  Unfortunately, we did not catch any more Blue-throats; however, one recapture that day was very special.  E14593 was well known to us and was originally banded by Bob and Martha Sargent at our undeveloped mountain property way back in August of 2006.  Originally banded as a juvenile male Broad-tailed Hummingbird, in adult plumage it was clear he was a hybrid Broad-tail X Black-chin.  He has been recaptured six times now and is five years old (pic in the 2009 report; link to display video in the 2010 report).  We look forward to seeing him again on territory at our cabin in 2012!  We are seeing a number of birds of this hybrid combination in the Davis Mountains.  So, May was behind us and it was a good month.  Seven banding sessions produced 319 birds of 7 species (plus 2 hybrids).  New birds banded were 254 and recaptures totaled 65.  Top species banded were Black-chinned 176, Lucifer 40 and Broad-tailed 29.

Adult male Black-chinned X Broad-tailed Hummingbird hybrid. (Maryann Eastman)

Another activity we were involved with for several weeks this spring was bander training.  Our good friends from San Angelo, Charles and Nancy Floyd applied to the BBL for a hummingbird authorization on Charles’ master banding permit.  To get that one must undergo special training and be certified by an authorized trainer.  Charles was a lefty so we worked with him to refine his technique so that in late June he would be ready to pass muster with Bob Sargent, his judge and jury.  Nancy would face the same fate in Arkansas in August with Bob.  We are glad to say that they both now have their hummingbird banding authorization.  Follow the projects of our bander friends in the San Angelo area at http://www.conchovalleybirdbanding.com/.

June came and we were still rainless.  Yet another fire occurred in the area and this time it was a very close call.  It started on June 2nd in the north end of Davis Mountains Resort from illegal activity in violation of the burn ban.  Everyone living there was fortunate that day as the winds were out of the south and the fire quickly burned away from most property improvements in the subdivision.  However, the fire soon turned west and threatened to reenter the subdivision near our cabin.  It took massive efforts to keep the fire in check and away from us and our neighbors in that portion of the resort.   Ten days later and 15,000 acres destroyed, the fire was finally stopped in the heart of the Davis Mountains Preserve, a property of the Nature Conservancy.  Due to a number of factors opportunities for banding were few and far between for the month.  In four banding sessions we only caught 177 birds, including 127 new birds and 50 recaptures.  Top species banded were Black-chinned 92, Broad-tailed 20 and Lucifer 14.  The best bird of the month was a female Broad-billed Hummingbird caught in our yard in Fort Davis.  We had been so busy that we had no idea she was there until she appeared in the trap.  We received some great news in June, this time from the BBL.  Marc and Maryann Eastmann, our very good friends who live in the Davis Mountains Resort, were awarded banding sub-permits (under my master permit) and were now officially a part of the west Texas team!  Congratulations Marc and Maryann and welcome aboard.  The little bit of banding that was accomplished revealed that Lucifer Hummingbirds were still concentrated in the lower desert.  On June 10th & 11th we caught and banded another 39 birds including 9 new birds and 30 recaptures of previously banded individuals.  Again, survival was the name of the game for this desert-adapted species and sugar-water solution was the ticket.  Some Lucifer Hummingbirds were starting to show up in the higher elevations of the region, a pattern observed in previous years.  The extent of this movement would soon prove to be an invasion!

View of slurry plane attacking the Tejano Canyon fire from our cabin on June 3rd. (Kelly Bryan)

For the past few years our immediate family has gathered in Fort Davis for the July 4th holiday period.  This year we would spend most of that time at our cabin in the mountains.  Banding hummingbirds is always an activity the family enjoys, especially my doctor brother-in-law (David) and his wife (Robin) from Plano.  This year we managed to band three days—July 1st, 2nd and 4th all at the cabin.  I normally do not band on consecutive days at a given location due to the stress potential on the birds; however, there were so many hummingbirds that I thought I would test the waters this time.  During those three sessions we caught 172 birds including 169 new birds and only 3 recaptures, none of which were banded during those three sessions.  Four species were represented including 6 Magnificent Hummingbirds, 89 Black-chins, 60 Broad-tails and a remarkable 17 Lucifers.  It is really not hard to figure out why Lucifer Hummingbirds were invading the mountains; they were seeking refuge from the excessive heat occurring in the lower desert and they were searching for new food resources.  However, the buildup of birds in the lower desert continued to escalate too.  In two days (July 9th & 10th) at our sampling sites in Terlingua Ranch we captured another 67 Lucifer Hummingbirds including an astonishing 31 new birds and 36 recaptures. Folks, these kinds of data would not be possible without the trapping and banding program. Another remarkable species was captured at Bonnie Wunderlich’s house on July 10th.  A male Blue-throated Hummingbird was caught and banded that day.  No doubt it was searching for new food resources and found Bonnie’s feeders, having abandoned the nearby Chisos Mountains where it normally spends the summer and breeds.  Ever seen a Blue-throat in an ocotillo?  Now you have.

Adult male Blue-throated Hummingbird in an ocotillo in the desert on July 10th. (Kelly Bryan)

Near the end of the month, on the 24th and 25th, another 46 Lucifers were caught at our three sampling sites in Terlingua Ranch including 17 new birds and 29 recaptures.  Lucifer totals for the month of July for three sampling sites in the Davis Mountains were starting to show the extent of the invasion of the higher elevations; 52 birds were caught including 48 new birds and 4 recaptures.  One banded adult male moved from our cabin to the Eastmann’s house two miles away.  We are still waiting for the day that one of our banded Lucifers from the lower desert is recaptured in the mountains, or vice versa.  July was a very special month for the banding project and a bit of moisture was starting to become a reality, especially in the higher elevations of the region.  For the month in 18 banding sessions we caught 1,064 birds of 8 species including 951 new birds banded and 113 recaptures.  Top species banded for July were Black-chinned 541, Broad-tailed 197, Lucifer 96, Rufous 79 and Magnificent 14.

Adult male Lucifer Hummingbird in the Davis Mountains in June 2011. (Maryann Eastman)

As if the environmental conditions were not bad enough to deal with, two additional problems created concerns for all of us.  First, as a result of the drought the retention ponds at CMO, our primary sampling site at Terlingua Ranch, were dry.  Without water the habitat there was in danger of being severely damaged.  Carolyn was having to haul water, 300 gallons a load, from the Terlingua Ranch Lodge (round trip—approximately 13 miles) in a valiant effort to save the habitat at CMO.  That plight continues today and is worth reading—see her blog at http://cmoasis.blogspot.com/.  The second problem was starting to have a direct impact on the hummingbirds themselves.  In the Terlingua Ranch area an invasion of tiny black flies had started a few weeks earlier and was getting noticeably worse.  These files were covering the hummingbird feeders and were small enough to simply crawl into the feeding portals and drown themselves in the sugar-water solution.  Fresh feeders could be fowled within 30 minutes of being hung out.  Fowled feeders were being totally rejected by the hummingbirds.  We have always tolerated bees and wasps on feeders, a problem that normally does not affect hummer activity and is solvable if you know how.  This was a new problem, one that had not occurred in the area in the previous 20-25 years.  Attempts to identify these pests are still underway which will hopefully lead to a method of defense if they persist in 2012.

Ever see a problem like this? (Carolyn Ohl-Johnson)

July 27th produced yet another banded Rufous Hummingbird from British Columbia, our third recapture of that species from that Canadian province.  C99868 was originally banded as an adult male at Vernon BC on July 2, 2008.  August was here and southbound migrants were in abundance, especially Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds.  Banding was hard work with so many birds around but that also made it fun.  On August 5th at our cabin in the mountains we set a new record for Allen’s Hummingbirds in a single day—6.  It would turn out to be a record year for that species.  Later in the month it was time for Fred Bassett to pass back through returning from Idaho.  Fred has a number of projects in the works and you can read about them at http://www.hummingbirdresearch.net/p1.html.  He would be joined by other members of the Hummer/Bird Study Group based in Alabama for several days of banding at our study sites.  We enjoyed seeing the faces of our “eastern” bander friends when they were confronted with the IDing, aging and sexing challenges presented by several species of “western” hummingbirds.   In four days the group caught 521 birds of 8 species including 484 new birds and 37 recaptures.  Among the guests that week was Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the BBL in Washington, DC.  When most folks were departing east on Sunday morning, Bruce set up to capture and band in our yard in Fort Davis.  Among thirty birds caught that morning were two Allen’s Hummingbirds, one of which was a female—a tough call in anybody’s book for this region.  I officially certify that Bruce knows his “western” hummingbirds!  August was our most productive month ever for this project.  In 18 banding sessions we captured 1,348 birds of 8 species including 1,248 new birds and 100 recaptures.  For the month the top species banded were Rufous 609, Black-chinned 347, Broad-tailed 122, and Calliope 94.  For me the highlight was the 20 Allen’s Hummingbirds banded for the month.  We are just waiting for the day that we catch a foreign-banded Allen’s from the west coast, or a bander out there catches one of our birds.

We started September with a visit from Charles and Nancy Floyd.  They too enjoyed trying to separate adults and juveniles, males and females of several species of “western” hummingbirds.  Handling dozens of these birds several days in a row gives you invaluable experience.  Anna’s Hummingbirds had not arrived yet but Ruby-throats were starting to build up in numbers, typical of this time of the year.  Mid-month, we all departed for Rockport, Texas to assist with the annual Hummer/Bird Festival that is a huge annual event for that region.  Thousands of southbound Ruby-throated Hummingbirds congregate on the central Texas coast in fall.  Hummingbird banding demonstrations were conducted there by Bob and Martha Sargent of Alabama and our group.  It was fun seeing a series of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and nothing else; in three days there we captured and banded 249 birds including 39 adult males, 27 adult females, 112 juvenile males and 69 juvenile females.  We returned home quickly so that we could finish out the month on our own project. We always expect migration to decline in September but usually it is a gradual reduction.  During the five days we were in Rockport, there was a mass exodus of birds from west Texas likely influenced by the current climatic cycle.  We returned with just a few birds lingering at each of our study sites.  However, on September 23rd at Carolyn’s CMO we caught yet another foreign banded bird.  This time it was a juvenile male Black-chinned Hummingbird wearing band number E95961.  I knew this one was going to be interesting because of the species and age.  Twenty-seven days earlier, on August 17th, he was banded near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.  So September was in the books and (not counting the birds banded at Rockport) we captured 676 birds of 10 species, including 646 new birds and 30 recaptures.  The top species banded in September were Rufous 241, Black-chinned 183, Broad-tailed 89, Calliope 61 and Ruby-throated 50.

Donna, Charles and Nancy banding at the Rockport-Fulton Hummer/Bird Festival. (David Poteet)

From an abundance standpoint, October proved to be just about the same as the last half of September.  From a climatic standpoint, there was not much improvement either.  Only the higher elevations profited the most from late summer and early fall rains.  Most storm systems provided spotty rains meaning many areas did not receive any at all.  Unfortunately, Carolyn’s CMO was one of those locations—she was still hauling water.  At our cabin in the Davis Mountains we received under seven inches, about one-third of our expected annual average for that location.  The last Ruby-throated and Black-chinned hummingbirds for the year were banded on October 11th.  Undoubtedly, the best bird of the month was a late Calliope Hummingbird, caught and banded in Alpine on October 27th, a month later than the previously last banded individual.  Anna’s Hummingbirds continued to appear in much lower numbers than what we had experienced the past three years.  In 16 banding sessions for the month we caught 155 birds of 8 species, including 147 new birds and 8 recaptures.  The top species banded in October were Rufous 60, Broad-tailed 48 and Anna’s 15.

So, November was here and Anna’s Hummingbird numbers had not improved much.  Normally, their numbers would peak early in the month.  However, one noticeable difference in their distribution this fall was that they were definitely more common in the lower desert than up in the Fort Davis/Davis Mountains area.  Not so in the previous four years.  Family obligations took us away for much of the month so there was little time for banding.  Upon our return from the holidays, one last banding session for the month at CMO resulted in the capture of 7 Anna’s Hummingbirds, including 6 new birds and 1 recapture.  A couple of hard freezes seemed to provide some control over the black fly infestation and suddenly bird numbers were up.  Related?  Not sure.  Before we could continue any sampling we took the first weekend of December off and attended the IBBA conference in Weslaco, Texas where I presented the Lucifer Hummingbird banding data for the first time.  As luck would have it a Violet-crowned Hummingbird showed up at CMO the day we left and, as luck would have it left the day we got back!  Therefore, there was no opportunity to try to trap and band it.

In another twist of fate, a left leg banded juvenile Selaphorus hummingbird was being seen at a residence in Marathon by Matt York and Heidi Trudell.  Why was that significant—I band all of my birds on the right leg.  So, this was my first priorty on Wednesday, December 7th.  There were two birds at their location and both were seen just after daylight but by mid-morning only one was there to grace the trap around the feeder.  Turns out it was a juvenile male Allen’s Hummingbird and you can read all about it on Matt and Heidi’s informative and witty blog on Big Bend Nature at http://bigbendtx.blogspot.com/.  This was the first Allen’s banded in December.  Before driving back to Fort Davis I stopped by Carolyn’s house in Alpine to try and catch a bird at her house.  We saw three but only one would enter the trap and it too was an Allen’s Hummingbird, a juvenile male.  More birds were present there so two days later we tried again.  This time we caught another (a third) juvenile male Allen’s Hummingbird but he was a recapture that was originally banded back in October.  The second bird caught was a juvenile female Rufous Hummingbird.  One last trip down south on December 12th would be our last banding session of the year.  Indeed numbers were up confirmed by the capture of 15 Anna’s and 2 Rufous Hummingbirds.  For the last two months six banding sessions resulted in the capture of 39 birds of 3 species, including 32 new birds and 7 recaptures.  One recaptured female Anna’s Hummingbird was originally banded as an adult way back in 2008.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird at CMO on December 1st; note the black fly on it's beak. (Carolyn Ohl-Johnson)

So, 2011 was in the books and it was our most productive year yet for the project.  In 87 banding sessions we captured 3,783 birds of 11 species including 3,409 new birds banded and 374 recaptures of previously banded individuals.  The eleven species captured was three fewer than in 2010—we did not see any Costa’s Hummingbirds this year and missed opportunities to band both White-eared and Violet-crowned hummingbirds.  There were several highlights for the year; first, we caught and banded 990 Rufous Hummingbirds.  This total, along with the 166 Calliope and 35 Allen’s hummingbirds that were banded were all new highs for those three species.  However, the staggering number of Lucifer Hummingbirds captured in 2011 stands as the story of the year!  Last year we banded 101 new birds and recaptured 97 previously banded birds; frankly, we never thought we would ever top that effort.  It was a total surprise that this desert-adapted species was concentrated at feeder stations in the numbers encountered.  For the year we captured and banded 190 new birds and recaptured 215 previously banded individuals.  The number of birds banded at our three sampling sites in Terlingua Ranch (lower desert habitat) was 124; the number of birds banded in the Davis Mountains was 66.  In the three previous years combined we had banded a total of 17 Lucifers in the Davis Mountains area.  Also, the banding data revealed the extent to which reproduction suffered in 2011 as a result of the drought.  For the past three years the percentage of juveniles represented in the total sample averaged 46.3 percent—in 2011 that figure was a mere 5.3 percent.  If this drought, the result of a strong La Niña pattern, continues as forecasted it will be interesting to see what affect it has on hummingbird populations in 2012.

2011 and project totals are as follows:

Species 2011 new banded birds 2011 recaptures Project totals
Broad-billed 3 1 10
White-eared 0 0 16
Violet-crowned 0 0 1
Blue-throated 2 0 3
Magnificent 23 3 176
Lucifer 190 215 378
Ruby-throated 80 1 290
Black-chinned 1361 94 3491
Costa’s 0 0 2
Anna’s 48 9 238
Calliope 166 1 346
Broad-tailed 509 33 1973
Rufous 990 15 2291
Allen’s 35 1 84
TOTALS 3409 374 9301

Note:  project totals reflect new birds banded only